Challenging the Complexity in Print Production
An assessment of the many aspects and components of a profitable and consistent print production workflow.
New print head technology, ink formulations and software solutions are paving the way to seriously benefit from improved quality and possibilities. However, dubious marketing spin and the drive to over-simplify configuration requirements and production limitations tend to overshadow sound advice and practical implementations. Moreover, many production processes are governed by speed of throughput with these rates being the principle criteria for running an efficient business. Manufacturers of machines are quick to promote these running speeds as a direct line to profit but, in truth, the numbers of square meters per hour which can be generated only represent one element of an overall cost-effective operation.
Even though great progress in understanding has been made over the last few years, there is still a huge gap between what is expected and what is possible. From a practical point-of-view, production speed has to fit into a company’s overall working operation where individual machines are in use for different parts of the process. This also takes into account logistics, manageability and, of course, the number of operators on the print-shop floor. It is not only the maximum amount of printed media in an hour that counts, although many print shop owners and printer manufacturers alike focus on this single parameter; it’s more what the total throughput as an end-product comes to.
Speed of a machine’s output doesn’t necessarily lead to overall efficiency. The most important thing about running a print shop profitably is setting up the work-flow properly. Although this may seem as an obvious thing to do, the numbers of companies missing out on making the most of their production is vast. In some cases, this is understandable because the print shop owner literally grew into the situation of having different types of equipment over time. His only solution was to invest in incompatible systems to get a specific job done. However, many businesses and their owners also just accepted the production set-up, simply because there wasn’t a trigger to optimize its facility and its work-flow, and to generate greater efficiency.
With more companies focusing on digital printing, there is a growth in available new products, services and opportunities. The downside is the often-heard complaints about insufficient proper advice and lack of expertise. This criticism applies to manufacturers and suppliers, as well as to print service providers. As a result, many end-users are not provided with solutions they are looking for and print shops find that they need to make additional investments to hold up to the promises being made.
Print shop owners who take a step back to look at their production facility may come to shocking insights when they discover that 20% of their output is thrown out because of production failure. A quick assessment shows that some machines or operators are standing still and idly waiting for another process to finish before they can run the next step of the production flow. Additionally, because of incompatible systems, considerable amounts of time are wasted on converting or changing media, rolls or processes.
Another common problem concerns the color reproduction and matching across systems. An issue often mentioned is the inability to catch mistakes before they happen. And operators that have grown to accept a certain system or method might get stuck with what they are accustomed to, and never research new or better options which can lead to greater efficiency and improved work-flow overall.
Logically, running different types of machinery will cause variations in output. Different inks produce a different color gamut, and different media will have had different treatments. Different print processes feature different resolutions and ink droplet shapes and sizes. Some inherent differences can’t be circumvented but, in pursuing optimization, it is certainly possible to greatly improve end results.
So, is print speed still the most important factor when valuing the overall production process? The obvious answer is: work-flow efficiency does not come from print speed alone.
Because of a tougher economy, greater competition and with the rise of converging markets, it is becoming increasingly apparent that an optimized work-flow can be exactly the key element that keeps a company afloat. Better still, this efficiency can enable companies to grow their businesses with greatly improved margins.
In an ideal world, a truly efficient and reliable work-flow needs to be based on compatible elements which, together, provide seamless production in a harmonious environment. There would be no nasty surprises likely to spring up from any part of the processing procedure, from file generation, color management, printing and finishing.
Often, in a single print shop, many manufacturers and suppliers will have delivered equipment with their own methodology and their own ideas on how to approach a production flow. Where one supplier suggests optimizing their specific machine in a certain way to get better results, this can result in adverse effects along the way with other processes. While one production method may work well, in another it may cause a lesser quality, or, worse, slowdown overall production.
Where one manufacturer’s RIP software will be perfect to run a specific machine, in a combined environment of different printers it can cause operators to lose time or find themselves struggling with unwanted misprints. Likewise, where one supplier may claim it sells media fit for any purpose, this can actually result in worse output than would be possible had a better media from another supplier been used.
For the majority of inkjet technologies in use today, each element is independent from the next so that the printing machines and finishing stations are not related because they are manufactured by different specialists. And even where one manufacturer provides a bundle or combination, it is often based on equipment coming from different places. This means: slightly different machine width and different media handling; different approach to optimizing speeds or developing interfaces and no relation between what happens at the beginning of the process and what can influence it at the end. It doesn’t mean that any single component is bad in itself, but combined make it less efficient.
Good work-flow also involves generating efficient practices across all production areas. Many of these might appear to be based on common-sense but this approach normally only becomes apparent if there is an awareness of all the processes involved in daily working, from start to finish.
The value of an efficient work-flow is based on overall throughput, and not merely that of the printing machine speed – after all, its role is only one part of the entire process. System efficiency and ergonomics also play a vital part in the economics and logistics of running an effective production line. True compatibility between software, printing, post-processing and finishing ensures that an operation flows smoothly and economically. This type of set-up means that operators can add to the overall productivity by planning each job within given parameters, knowing that their work-flow is tailored to the solutions being used and the people who are using them, and without unwanted or unexpected interference or disruption.
…to improve training and knowledge via technical articles and seminars and to stimulate worldwide exchange of technical information…
How ESMA and LMNS connect the dots
It’s not an easy task to filter the marketing stories from the realistic production figures. There is no global forum or online portal with product reviews and comparison sheets. Well-known manufacturers might not have the right product but produce convincing marketing ‘spin’, while lesser known manufacturers could have the perfect product but do not have the right exposure. And resellers may offer products from different suppliers that may or may not be entirely compatible.
ESMA is working with its members and technology partners to answer questions about best practices in digital print production, by combining the expertise of many involved. Part of its motto has always been to improve training and knowledge via technical articles and seminars and to stimulate worldwide exchange of technical information.
One example of how complexities in print production can be countered is the approach of ESMA technology partner LMNS, an expert initiative that combines the know-how of its network of specialists that have a track record in the areas of visual communication, sales and marketing, printer development, ink formulation, textile, packaging, software, color management and many other disciplines related to traditional analog screen printing, digital inkjet printing and print workflow processes.
Both serve the same industry with a similar attitude: connecting the dots in order to catch problems before one dot is printed.
This article has been published in print (SPW’11) and can now also be found in the ESMA expert publication for the 2016 Drupa exhibition.
This article was written by Roland Biemans, founder/owner of LMNS. With an international background of research, development and marketing of software, hardware and supplies in the inkjet printing industry, Roland played an important role at different companies adapting and transforming technology for the development of innovative practical solutions. Among these solutions were the first refill sets and bulk ink systems for large format inkjet printers, edible ink, media winding systems, the first ever double-sided digital textile printer, software for controlling engravers, routers and cutters and an award winning contract proofing software. Most of his time was dedicated to the development and sales of software for color correction, color separation, proofing, photo editing and driving inkjet printers in the sign, banner and color reproduction industry.
Roland initiated the digital textile print competence center in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. Early 2013, he became board member of the European Specialist Printing Manufacturers Association (ESMA), and continues to support the association as Technology Partner. The Specialist Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA) awarded Roland with the outstanding service award in recognition of his effort in advancing the industry and its association.
More information about Roland can be found at his LinkedIn page at: linkedin.com/in/rolandbiemans/